Outcry over plan to raze Soviet-era flats in Moscow

An apartment block in Moscow being demolished last month. Moscow's mayor wants to knock down low-rise housing, focusing on the five-storey buildings thrown up under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s and 60s. But the programme has prompted
An apartment block in Moscow being demolished last month. Moscow's mayor wants to knock down low-rise housing, focusing on the five-storey buildings thrown up under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s and 60s. But the programme has prompted protests from residents fearful of losing their homes and who say it rides roughshod over their property rights.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MOSCOW • Ms Valeriya Yevseyeva and her husband Alexei bought a flat last year in a five-storey brick building near a Moscow park where they love to cycle.

Now they face the possibility that the authorities will demolish their 1950s building and rehouse them in a tower block - in an urban development plan not seen since Soviet times to demolish more than 4,500 apartment blocks and relocate hundreds of thousands of Muscovites.

Backed by President Vladimir Putin, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin wants to knock down low-rise housing, focusing on the five-storey buildings thrown up under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s and 60s as the then USSR rushed to build housing for everyone.

But the programme - due to start in September - has prompted protests from residents fearful of losing their homes and who say it rides roughshod over their property rights. And the level of outcry has even forced Mr Putin to react in a bid to reassure residents.

Get The Straits Times
newsletters in your inbox

"The aim is to improve housing conditions for people who live in buildings that are falling down," the Kremlin strongman told ministers. "It goes without saying that this should be done in such a way and with such means and methods so as to not breach the rights of citizens."

The authorities initially wanted to demolish 8,000 buildings, home to 1.6 million people, but reduced the scale this month after conducting opinion polls.

The first five-storey buildings - nicknamed khrushchevki after the Soviet leader and which rehoused people living in communal flats where entire families were squeezed into single rooms - were celebrated as a symbol of social progress in films and composer Dmitri Shostakovich's 1958 operetta, Moscow, Cheryomushki.

Now, some seven decades later, those backing the project to pull them down are billing it as an equally important transformation.

"It's a historic step. There probably hasn't been such large-scale change to Moscow since the 1950s," said ruling United Russia party MP Pyotr Tolstoy.

Often situated in leafy communal settings, the apartment blocks were built without lifts, and the kitchens are small. The worst are made of precast concrete panels, but many are built with brick.

"They're outdated. It's impossible to repair, renovate or reconstruct them. People really do live in awful conditions," said Mr Tolstoy.

He co-authored the Bill on the demolitions that got the preliminary backing of Parliament, but many details are vague and remain to be worked out.

Under the programme, people are promised a flat of "equivalent" size - not the same value - in the same, albeit likely spread-out, district. It would be impossible to legally contest eviction - only the new flat's size - and residents have just 60 days to move out.

Some people are happy to swop their poky flats for new ones. "The building's worn out - there's not much pleasant about it," said a resident, who provided only her first name Yekaterina, adding that her kitchen measures just 5 sq m.

But many are deeply upset and have not been afraid to express their anger.

Ms Yevseyeva, who lives in a spacious 1957 building with high ceilings and thick walls, was horrified to realise that her home could be at risk if demolition plans for her building go ahead.

"We were sure it didn't face any threat, but according to this Bill, it's possible to take away any property," she said, calling the plan "a nightmare".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 08, 2017, with the headline 'Outcry over plan to raze Soviet-era flats in Moscow'. Print Edition | Subscribe